Book Sale

Saturday 26 March 2022

Conservatives and Progressives Are Both Wrong About Inequality


Equality breaks things. This is why the international symbol of a lot of “equality” or social justice movements is a fist, because fists smash and break things, just as equality does. The thing equality breaks the most is the mind. The minds of both conservatives and progressives on many issues are limited because many submit their thinking to a bad idea like equality, which breaks things.  

Conservatives tend to believe in equality of opportunity. They believe that people are basically equal and that disparities of outcome essentially come down to whether or not people take advantage of their opportunities. This idea doesn’t make sense because even given basically the same opportunities two siblings will have different lives. Because of this understanding of equality of opportunity, conservatives tend to think that individual choices and aptitude, or dedication, are the basic reason for inequality in society. The wealthy got to where they are because they work harder than anyone else, the poor got to where they are because they are lazier than someone else. The West rewards those who take their opportunities, so the conservative would say take your opportunities.

Progressives tend to take the idea of people being equal even further. They tend to believe in equality of outcome, that all people should be represented in all [desirable] fields of life equally. They believe that not only should people be considered equal, but they should be equal in wealth, possessions, and more. Equality of outcome is perhaps one of the most pernicious evils in the world, and the most consistent dystopian idea to be presented as utopian. Because progressives are more beholden to the idea of equality, they believe that disparities in society are a result of systemic injustice. They must be! Correct? Because if people are essentially equal than the only reason society is not more equal is that the powerful have stacked the system against the less powerful. Therefore, where an injustice exists it is almost always the result of some structural oppression whether by race, class or otherwise. Don’t look to the individuals as being at fault for their bad actions, look to the social structures of the society around them.  

Both conservatives and progressives are wrong. First, to different degrees and in different ways they have both fallen for the lie of the possibility of equality between people. Second, inequalities in our society are not all driven from personal choices, or all driven from structural biases. The truth is that it is a mix of both, stemming from an even more basic truth: there is no such thing as equality between people. I have established this in previous articles (for example here and here). This is a radical concept for some people, but it is vital to accept if we are going to address theses issue of inequality in society.

Because the Bible does not ever promote the idea of equality, but instead often rebukes it, and because those who were inspired to write the Bible understood the fact that humans are not equal, the bible does not come at this problem from the left or the right, but from a place of understanding human nature. It recognizes the importance of individual choices, but also the need for constant social reform and breaking down of corrupted and oppressive structures. From the Bible’s perspective those with less power need to be incentivized to make good decisions that help them prosper, but the powerful also need to be restrained so they do not utterly corrupt all of society. Let’s explore how the Bible shows us the need for both.

There is a very interesting passage in 1 Samuel that explains why David was able to build popular support for his kingship; 

“1 David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father's house heard it, they went down there to him. 2 And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men” (1 Sam. 22:1-2).

When David was on the run from Saul, men started to gather around him. Men who were in debt, in bitterness of soul and in distress. In other words, they were being oppressed by the system. Some might react there and say, but Matt, wasn’t it more likely these people were just not competing well in the society of that day; that they had made bad decisions in their lives? Maybe. But note what these men were like. They are not ordinary run of the mill guys.  

The account of David’s adventures with these men shows they were nothing but ruthlessly competent and capable. They were leaders among men and from among these men came some real notables;

“8 These are the names of the mighty men whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth a Tahchemonite; he was chief of the three. He wielded his spear against eight hundred whom he killed at one time.

9 And next to him among the three mighty men was Eleazar the son of Dodo, son of Ahohi. He was with David when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there for battle, and the men of Israel withdrew. 10 He rose and struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clung to the sword. And the Lord brought about a great victory that day, and the men returned after him only to strip the slain.

11 And next to him was Shammah, the son of Agee the Hararite. The Philistines gathered together at Lehi, where there was a plot of ground full of lentils, and the men fled from the Philistines. 12 But he took his stand in the midst of the plot and defended it and struck down the Philistines, and the Lord worked a great victory.

13 And three of the thirty chief men went down and came about harvest time to David at the cave of Adullam, when a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. 14 David was then in the stronghold, and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. 15 And David said longingly, “Oh, that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!” 16 Then the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate and carried and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it. He poured it out to the Lord 17 and said, “Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. These things the three mighty men did” (1 Kings 22:8-17).   

These are not weak men incapable of competing in their day. They are the crème-de-le-crème of the Israelite society. These are the kind of men that you build an ancient government around, because in the ancient world you needed fierce and dangerous men to lead your nation in battle against the fierce and dangerous men of other societies. These were the kind of men that Saul could have used to drive out the Philistines and establish peace for Israel in the land. But instead, like David, these capable men had been shut out by a corrupt system, forced into destitution. This was a continual problem in Israel, we see it all through Scripture.

We read in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God’s condemnation of how the powerful had used their position to crush the poor. They had plundered the possessions of their own people, using debt and power to take what they willed;   

“13 The Lord has taken his place to contend; he stands to judge peoples. 14 The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. 15 What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord God of hosts” (Isa. 3:12-15).

They had confiscated or bought up all the land so as to control it for themselves;

“8 Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. 9 The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. 10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah” (Isa. 5:8-10).

Israel’s corruption had turned the guardians of the people, the elites, into the oppressors of the people;

“21 How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. 22 Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. 23 Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them” (Isa. 1:21-23).

The wealthy used their power to corral and harass the poor, rather than to protect them. Because of this injustice, through the corruption of the system, the land would be judged;

“1 Behold, the Lord will empty the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. 2 And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor 3 The earth shall be utterly empty and utterly plundered; for the Lord has spoken this word” (Isa. 24:1-3, not the word earth here can be translated land, i.e the land of Israel).

This passage is either pronouncing judgement on the land (Israel), or on the earth, but either way it is condemning the powerful using their wealth and power in corrupt ways.

Indeed, even David himself failed to attend well to the predatory rich during his reign, to such a degree he nearly lost the throne himself to his son Absalom. Absalom was able to use the distress of the people to gather support for his kingship (2 Sam. 15:1-6). “Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 15:6).

The Scriptures recognize how the system can be turned against the people; how the wealthy can use their wealth to increase their own power and position and crush the poor. Because of this God set in place laws that required the cancelling of debts, for example the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, and other laws pertaining to releasing fellow Israelites who were enslaved through unfortunate circumstances or decisions. The Scriptures recognized that people were not equal and because of this society would become unbalanced, and therefore it would need to be reset from time to time. The “great reset” in the Bible was the concept of periodical freedom from debt. This is the context of Isaiah 61;

“61 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn…” (Isa. 61:1-2).

This passage, which many will recognize as being part of the foundation of the ministry of Jesus in Luke chapter 4, is intricately bound up in the biblical concept of periodically releasing people from their debts and the slavery incurred by debt, so the land would remain stable. Central to God’s judgement on the Israelites was their continual refusal to enact these laws of justice;

“13 Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, 14 ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service.’ But your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me. 15 You recently repented and did what was right in my eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name, 16 but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back his male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your slaves.

17 “Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the Lord. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Jer. 34:13-17).

God’s law required a periodical resetting of the economy so that people could be restored to their land and be able to provide for themselves and continue to contribute to society. You would own something and be happy. That was the intention of these laws. This was central to God’s ideal for his people, “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan” (Lev. 25:10).

The simple response many conservatives will give to this examination of the need for debt forgiveness is that this was just something for ancient Israel, not modern nations. But this could not be further from the truth. Michael Hudson in his book …and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year, proves conclusively that the predatory rich who enslaved their populations were central to the collapse of the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian and other civilisations. The law of the word of God was written in this ancient context to seek to protect the Israelites from this same fate. This is the fate of all civilisations that allow debt to roll on unchecked. The predatory rich enslave their own people, weakening a society and making it vulnerable to incursions from outside threats. This was true from Egypt to Rome and all the civilisations either side.

Conservatives today recognize that people can make bad decisions with debts, the Bible does this as well, “One who lacks sense gives a pledge and puts up security in the presence of his neighbor” (Prov. 17:18). A lot of debt in our culture today is from people making bad decisions and borrowing what they could not possibly pay back. But this is not the full picture.

To buy a house today is something many people cannot afford without a very large debt. But the way the housing industry has been overtaken by wealthy investor buyers means people without much means have a choice to make: either buy a house and take out a crushing debt (that enslaves their decisions for decades) or stay in the rental market and pay someone else’s debt off and face constantly increasing rent payments and less control over your own home. You can say in the technical sense that those who get a home loan chose debt, but in the Scriptures, someone was in debt whether it was to finance or to their landlord, it was effectively the same thing. What is really happening is people are being squeezed into two increasingly bad positions which put them at the mercy of those who have far more than they need. Today’s economy is increasingly being stacked against those who have not; this is crushing the poor, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender” (Proverbs 22:7).

Conservatives are wrong. Debt is not just about personal choices. Progressives are wrong. Debt is not just about systemic abuses. It is a combination of both, but as society gets in more and more debt the structures in place that favour the wealthy far outweigh personal choice. Conservatives and progressives are both wrong that equality is possible. There will always be inequalities in a society, this is unavoidable. But it is manageable. God’s law gives all societies wisdom about how to manage these inequalities. A regular reset of the economy or a regular releasing or wiping from debts can bring balance, help people retain their land, possessions, family structures and dignity.

One of the reasons so many ancient Mesopotamian societies could survive for so long in such harsh conditions was that kings believed it was their sacred duty to periodically wipe debts. This kept people on their land and kept them producing to provide for themselves and from their surplus, for society. These civilisations fell when the wealthy were able to gobble up all the land for themselves, and the kings did not stop them. I will explore this further in future pieces, but for now, let’s meditate on what the Scriptures say about this topic, and ask ourselves: do we really think we are wiser than God when we say, forgiving debts regularly can’t work? Because that is how many people today think. We will explore this more in the future.    

No comments:

Post a Comment